FIFA, gender discrimination, and women’s soccer’s “turf war”

This was inspired by Jessica Luther’s piece on the recent lawsuit filed against FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association by some of the sport’s top players. The lawsuit charges that forcing women to play competitively on artificial turf, an issue that men’s players at the highest level will not face in at least the next two World Cups, is gender discrimination.

I played soccer for 12 years, the last 5 of which were played on a competitive traveling team. While field conditions weren’t always ideal – driving 5 hours to play a game on an undersized, muddy field in the pouring rain will always stick in my mind – most of our games took place on grass fields. Playing on grass meant disciplined slide tackles, better ball control, and being able to run up and down the field, in cleats meant for grass, without fear of slipping on “padded concrete” and sustaining a serious injury.

When I was 14, I played on artificial turf for the first time. It was summer in California, which meant that during day games, it would be at least 90 degrees outside. At one tournament in particular, we played at a complex where the only shade around was created by the large umbrellas that parents brought to sit under while they watched their kids play.

This is what I normally wore when playing games in the heat. Not conducive to playing on artificial turf at all.

This is what I normally wore when playing games in the heat. Not conducive to playing on artificial turf at all.

As a goalkeeper, I had relative choice when it came to what I could wear. During my first turf game, I took the heat into account and simply wore our secondary kit in opposite colors – a short-sleeved jersey and shorts. This way, I didn’t have to wear a heavier keeper’s jersey and I could stave off the heat just as well as my teammates.

I realized my mistake the first time I slid out to collect the ball.

It felt like a carpet burn, only worse. The entire right side of my right leg was red, both from the friction against the turf and the dozens of cuts that had formed between the top of my sock and just underneath my hip. (See Sydney Leroux’s photo of her own legs after playing a game on turf for a good reference point; yes, there is blood.) On grass, this slide would have maybe caused some grass stains on my clothes and some dirt I could easily brush off my leg. On turf, it really, really hurt.

This is a good place to mention that not only is artificial turf brutal on skin when it opens cuts, it’s also hot. Studies have shown that the surface temperature of artificial turf can be up to 35 to 55 degrees hotter than natural grass – something that can be easily confirmed by anyone who’s ever played on it. Your feet feel noticeably hotter than the rest of your body just standing on a turf playing field, especially on an already sweltering day.

After that initial game, after having slid and fallen all over the turf in the keeper’s box – much less having to deal with how much higher and more erratically the ball bounces on a turf field – I realized that I couldn’t deal with playing on an artificial surface in what I was wearing again. My legs, arms, and even my face were scratched up, simply from trying to play the same game on artificial turf as I had always played on grass without incident.

For the rest of the time I played soccer, whenever we were sent to play on a turf field (including an entire winter league season, which in California could still mean relatively high outside temperatures), I always wore a long-sleeved keeper’s jersey and long pants to try to avoid what I went through in that first game. However, the turf remained relentless. I still felt it burning and cutting into my skin whenever I hit the ground. My arms and legs were bloody and bruised underneath my clothes, and I’d only discover the extent to which this was true when I changed into a T-shirt and shorts after the game.

This is not how anyone should be forced to play soccer. In a contact sport where pivotal parts of the game take place on the ground, female players should not have to take this kind of damage because the sport’s governing body doesn’t see a problem with allowing men, and not women, to play on a surface conducive to the sport.

With no sense of irony, FIFA chose this statement from the coach of the Albanian women’s team as one of two “quotes of the year” in its 2013 women’s football review:

The word football doesn’t differentiate between male and female. Football is a game featuring 22 players and one ball, and it’s the same for both men and women!

Perhaps if this were actually the case, this sentiment would carry more weight among women’s soccer players worldwide.

Also published at Medium.

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